Child 44 — A Detective Story that Explores Stalinism
A country that denies the crimes and conditions of its people is a very dangerous thing. The dictator and his cronies of such country wouldn’t believe or accept the possibility that there might be some failures within a system. Soviet Union, in the early 1950’s, lived under such an authoritarian ruler, Stalin, who blamed all the misdeeds as western propaganda or on anti-soviet elements. If there isn’t an anti-soviet element, they framed one. Tom Rob Smith’s chilling thriller novel “Child 44” is set during those terror days.
The story is set in 1953 and its plot centers on a prolific child killer, who can kill as much children he wants because the Soviet system states that serial-killing or other degradations are only the products of capitalist state. The child slayings are either deemed as accidents or blamed on mentally-impaired, homosexuals – anyone who is not accepted as part of the Soviet society. The story’s protagonist is Leo Demidov, an officer in the most-feared MGB (predecessor to the famous KGB). He is initially sent to his fellow officer’s house, Fyodor.
Fyodor’s son, Arkady has recently been killed, his body mutilated, found near the railway tracks. Eye witness states that a mysterious man was with the boy, moments before he was killed. But, a murder investigation can only be opened by MGB if they already had a suspect, and so it is said that the boy has jumped in on the train. Fyodor’s family, however, is causing a commotion that their boy was murdered. So, Leo threatens and intimidates the grieving family into silence. Leo’s tactics work, but his own belief on the system comes to scrutiny when he catches veterinarian Anatoly Brodsky.
Leo believes that Brodsky is innocent, but his superiors say that he is an American spy. This little doubt and little delayed action on the part of Leo put him and his beautiful Raisa under serious danger. He is eventually discredited from MGB and sent to an industrial backwater. He is assigned to lowly post in the local militia, where he comes across the murder of a child. The child’s body is mutilated like that of Arkady and found near the tracks. He stumbles upon a methodical killer, who travels by train and murdering children all along the lines.
“Child 44” differs from usual serial-killer thrillers in two ways: the way Rob Smith deals Soviet Union’s attitude toward crime and the complications; and the way the relationship between Leo and Raisa evolves. It’s almost absurd to expect a strong female character in a crime novel, but Raisa’s characterizations are one of the best parts in this novel. The mutual mistrust between Leo and Raisa is well etched out. Rob Smith gives us a good twist on the archetype loyal wife thing.
Smith has previously worked as a script-writer and so the narration lends enough clarity and each setting is carefully laid out like those of a movie. It’s not so surprising that ‘Child 44’ is being made into a movie (with Tom Hardy. Gary Oldman, and Noomi Rapace). Nevertheless, there are many elements in the book that might work better on the pages than on screen. Smith wonderfully paints the paranoia of the Stalin era with little details. For example, Raisa, the secondary school teacher, notes how her ability to remember all her students’ names disturbs them (because she can denounce the students by calling their name).
The detective part of the story finely explores the realities of life in the Soviet Union. However, towards the end, you could feel a fatigue as Smith tries to encompass every defective elements of Soviet history. I felt the twist ending and motivations of the killer a bit unconvincing. The ending is also too sweet and heart-warming, something which could be only expected in a mainstream Hollywood movie. Nonetheless, the novel deserves full credit for a unique setting and well fleshed out characters.
“Child 44” is a page-turner that finely incorporates the complex political climate of Soviet Union. The nerve-wrecking pace and wintry settings make it a must-read for crime genre readers.